Destroying mummy masks: “Since we own, it’s ok”. Maybe not…

A reader of this blog, Beau Quilter, was so nice to edit the long and remarkably boring performance of Josh McDowell on papyri from mummy cartonnage and the truth of the Bible. We now have a two minutes peak that I hope all of you will watch:

I like the words Beau Quilter has added at the end as a comment to a quote of McDowell himself: “Apparently since they own it, it’s ok’.

This sentence underlines two important elements of this sad story. First, the incredible lack of any awareness about the importance of archaeological evidence that this man and others, like Scott Carroll (who apparently dismounted mummy cartonnage for the Green collection and possibly others in the past), demonstrate. The aggressive cultural discourse behind their words and actions would deserve a treatise on its own. People like Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll are a threat not only for the damages they have procured to cultural heritage patrimony, but also for their misuse of ancient manuscripts in public discourses on the Bible. Their faith must be very weak if they need scraps of papyrus in order to prove the value of the Scriptures.

The second element I wish to bring to your attention is that for once there is some truth in what McDowell is saying: from what I have gathered, according to the American and other legislations, the legal owner of an ancient object can dispose of it as he/she wishes. This opens a number of interesting considerations on responsible and irresponsible private collecting that would deserve a longer, separate post. But that ownership must be legal: if it comes out that the object was bought illegally, in this case that the mask does not have clear provenance, everything changes. In principle, the legal owner of these destroyed masks could pursue McDowell and other iconoclasts, and the dealers who sold the objects, in order to be compensate for the loss.

Why Josh McDowell and other owners of antiquities are not revealing names of the dealers they have purchased masks and other cartonnage from, and do not publicly provide documents proving that their acquisitions are legal? Do they fear that the eventual legal owner of those artefacts (e.g. the Egyptian Government) will pursue them in court one day?

Mummy masks, papyri and the Gospel of Mark

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Slide commented by C. Evans, screen shot from YouTube video

Do we need to comment on the last articles about professor Craig Evans and the Gospel of Mark fragment? We do, it seems, from the many questions posed by readers of those articles, this blog and many others. But first, I wish to thank all the journalists who have given time and space to this topic and helped to raise questions on what is happening.


So here’s a re-cap with some explanations and a couple of new thoughts:

1) There is not a single New Testament or early Christian papyrus published so far coming from mummy cartonnage. Correct me if I am wrong, please. Mummy cartonnage = a sort of papier-mâché constituted by various materials sometimes including recycled papyri and used for fabricating masks and other covering panels for mummies.

2) According to current scholarship and archaeological finding, the use of recycling papyri for making mummy masks and panels ended in the early Augustan period, i.e. when Jesus was not even born or just a child. So what reported under point 1) is unsurprising. We have hundreds Ptolemaic papyri coming from mummy cartonnage, very few from the Roman period, and at the moment all dated inside this span of time. On the standard dates see e.g. D. Obbink, ‘P. Artemid.: The Artefact’, in: K. Brodersen, J. Elsner, Images and Texts on the “Arthemidorus Papyrus”, Stuttgart 2009.

Of course we would be very excited to learn that there is a massive shift in the current state of research, but without access to the evidence of this shift (images, data and publications) it is impossible to comment if this is really happening or not. These are not conditions in which a serious public debate on the topic can take place. These are perfect conditions, however, for the flourishing of ignorance and propaganda as a consequence.

3) Papyrologists have developed various methods for recovering papyri from cartonnage, which nowadays do not necessitate the complete dissolving or destroying of the masks or panels. If you pay attention to what Evans say in the video and interviews it seems clear that he does not know what he is talking about: he and the team he mentions are not experts on the matter since they apparently are not updated on the current methodology and need to destroy artifacts in order to get the fragments out (keep your cartonnage away from them!).

Although as I said technology is less invasive than it used to be, it still is at some extent. It is the case to remind the audience that any kind of intervention on ancient artifacts, even conservation, presents problems and before being performed teams of experts – in this case papyrologists, conservators, Egyptologists, etc. – evaluate pros and cons in order to decide if and how to proceed. Precise protocols are followed and the process is documented through imaging, recording and publishing. Nothing of this kind has happened yet in this case. We have not seen anything except slides with masks dating to the Ptolemaic – v. early Roman period as those previously shown in other videos – featuring Scott Carroll, director of the Green collection from 2009 to 2012, Josh McDowell and others – which we are carefully archiving since one year by now. Those slides and videos are very alarming: I will change my opinion on what has happened so far the day I will be given access to solid information not only on the process employed, but also on the legal acquisition circumstances of the cartonnage dissolved.

What is also alarming for someone who is supposed to teach and write on a history subject, is the way Evans approaches archaeological objects and their significance: he is reassuring us that “We’re not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece,” as if all the rest of our ancient evidence has no importance whatsoever. Do we need to comment further on this? I do not think so.

On mummy cartonnage dismounting and conservation I recommend J. Frösén “Conservation of ancient papyrus materials” written for the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Check out also the webpage of Helsinki University dedicated to the topic:

4) Why this obsession for cartonnage? This is indeed a fascinating question on which I am pondering since a while. For sure this is a means through which speakers (e.g. Christian apologists and academics) may evoke a sense of mystery and adventure that appeals so much to the media and the public. The oldest fragment of the Bible, new lines of famous classical authors, the expertise of the team…have you got a pale idea of everyday life in a papyrus collection? What we mainly recover are tax receipts, accounts and letters of people who ask to send donkeys up and down the Nile and then attach greetings for the entire village: and I mean name by name, and the names are odd. It is super cool, but it would hardly have any media coverage, right? Even more dramatically, academics are far from cool, trust me: badly dressed, usually unfit and clumsy, always exhausted. They spend most of their time in small untidy offices dealing with bureaucracy with the mirage to sit in a dusty library or a museum. There are the archaeologists, true, but I am mostly told unedifying stories of insects, diarrhea, and bad sweat smell. Yes, we are miles away from Indiana Jones…

Anyway, dealers should be quite happy about all the recent cartonnage advertisement. The Christian papyri stories, and the Sappho fragments news too, must have increased the appeal of cartonnage on the market: I am very curious to keep an eye on prices in auction catalogues, eBay and elsewhere. Taking aside nice masks and decorated panels, these materials are not very attractive for the average collector: the promise of hidden gems could be a good way to pack them nicely for sale.

Finally, I start thinking that cartonnage may represent a very convenient way for collections and collectors to do some papyri laundry. Let’s consider this scenario: you are a collector who buys mummy cartonnage and other Egyptian antiquities on the market with solid acquisition history and records. For instance, you go to a London auction and purchase a collection of mummy panels or other cartonnage (book-coverings and similar), with legal acquisition records (e.g. documents attesting that the pieces were already in a European collection in 1950). You do buy a lot of this stuff because you love Egypt, the mummies, the paintings on the panels, and papyri of all sorts, or maybe you are planning to open a museum or a library. Then you or someone working for you find some dodgy papyri on sale let’s say in Egypt, Turkey, or on eBay, and since you have some training in papyrology or you have an expert on your payroll, you do realize that these are fragments from a Gospel or from a famous classical author. (And they are a bargain in comparison to those sold by auction houses, or London and New York antiquities shops). Surely, for these you will never get good acquisition circumstances records. But as long as all of those involved in the transaction will keep their mouth closed, you could always pretend that those dodgy papyri come from the cartonnage you bought in London and later dismounted with your staff. You can even be so lucky to have made the regular purchase from a dealer who does not keep images or records of the pieces on sale, especially when they appear in the shape of insignificant papyri glued together (book coverings and other recycled papyri) or small pieces of mummy panels. We have learnt that even a big auction house like Christie’s happens not to keep images and records of pieces of this kind in some cases.

Obviously, these are all fantasies. In the real world people are never too brilliant and would certainly commit many mistakes. So do not try to embark into a criminal career following these suggestions: you will go to jail soon or later, I bet…

5) To conclude: will this Mark fragment be ever published? Does it even exist? Good questions: who knows? Well some people do actually know, but will not speak because they have signed non-disclosure agreements (another recent innovation, unheard in our fields before all this started): for instance Evans and Daniel Wallace, who both apparently saw or were informed about the papyrus in question. But also the Green collection team should know something, at least if Evans is telling us lies when saying that the fragment will be published by Brill, the publisher of the Green papyri (has Brill anything to say on this?). Mike Holmes, director of the Green Scholars Initiative, has posted an elusive answer on his blog after I and others pressed him with questions.

The lack of information does not help. What a mess!

The new Sappho fragments acquisition history: what we have learnt so far

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084) From Wikicommons

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084)
From Wikicommons

The latest information provided by the main editor of the new Sappho fragments in his paper (D. Obbink, “Provenance, Authenticity, and Text of the New Sappho Papyri”, available online) confirms what I have written already about anonymous collectors and the perils academics face when dealing with them. I want to be clear on my opinion from the opening: the acquisition circumstances narrative so far could be absolutely plausible, and some unclear passages perfectly explainable, but we have not been given yet direct access to all the data for following this narrative. In other words, what I am questioning is the quality of the information delivered so far by the editors of the Sappho fragments, the “anonymous collector”, the Green collection and Christie’s department of manuscripts. However, I am still hoping that all the persons involved will add solid evidence on the provenance of the fragments and also of the Coptic Galatians 2 papyrus, which comes apparently from the same Christie’s lot. Solid evidence means: images of the cartonnage before dismounting (which must be available since folders are mentioned in some details in the article), documents attesting the acquisition history of the pieces, and the name of the ‘trusted dealer’ who sold Coptic Galatians 2 to the Green collection in 2013 after the fragment went from Christie’s elegant London showrooms (2011) to the eBay Turkish bazaar of MixAntik (2012).

I have already argued that anonymous collectors represent an issue for academics. Anonymity is a right, but it brings along all sorts of complications: important details might not be fully disclosed to the audience, not even to the scholars involved in the publication of the pieces, and things can go very wrong, as the case of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ has demonstrated. The Sappho fragments’ case illustrates my point and goes well beyond matters of simple privacy. Let me explain why. The first information on the London Sappho’s owner that we received from Obbink (“New Poems by Sappho”, The Times Literary Supplement 5 February 2014), and Bettany Huges (“Lover, Poet, Muse and a Ghost Made Real,” The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014) was as follows:

  1. The owner is a collector based in London.
  2. He is an elderly gentleman, and the acquisition history of the papyrus is obscure but connected with a German officer: “The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.” (Bettany Huges). I want to make clear to the non-UK audience that Bettany Huges is not just a journalist, but an ancient historian who should know what she is talking about.

Nothing was said regarding the link with the Green collection’s fragments, about which we were briefly informed through the pre-print version of the forthcoming Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (from now on ZPE) edition. That version was later retired from the web. The pre-print, however, did not contain any detail on how fragments from the same roll came to be dispersed in different collections, one in London, the other in Okhlahoma City, and no answer was given on the point in either public or private conversations (e.g. my question on the New Sappho fragments blog). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.07.25 Although we were confident that new details would appear in the definitive printed version of the article, not a word was spent on the point, as we discovered in April (S. Burris, J. Fish, D. Obbink, “New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho,” ZPE 189 (2014) 1-28; D. Obbink, “Two Poems by Sappho,” ZPE 189 (2014) 32-49). An article on the conservation of the fragments was promised by Obbink in footnote 2: “For reasons of space, I describe the conservation of the papyri as part of a separate, forthcoming study”. I want to underline that the topic of the forthcoming study was conservation, not provenance, although we were expecting clarification of that too. “Conservation”, to me at least, sounded as if the dismounting of the cartonnage had been performed by the editors themselves, who are serious professionals, with all the documentation included, i.e. images of the material before the intervention and detailed description and images of the dismounting process, as is normal practice nowadays. But that was not the case, as we have since discovered.

The new paper tells a different story. I understood that the version of events was going to be different, when David Trobisch, director of the Green collection, suddenly started to mention in conversations and emails that both the Coptic Galatians 2 and the Sappho fragments (all of them) had in their acquisition history files a Christie’s auction of 2011. They were part of lot 1. Here is the section of the lot’s brief description from the printed catalogue (let’s hope I will not be prosecuted for infringing some nightmarish copyright issue: Fine printed books and manuscripts including a selection from the Malcolm Jr. Churchill collection and photo books from the Calle collection, Monday 28 November 2011, p. 2). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.11.14 I do not see any good reason why this key information was not given before since it could have avoided us all the polemics about the provenance issues, do you? Could anyone of the people involved provide an explanation, please? But there is more. First of all, the portrait of the anonymous collector has dramatically changed from Bettany Huges’ elderly gentleman to “an owner and his staff” who dismounted the cartonnage “by dissolving in a warm-water solution” (p. 2), and sold unwanted fragments again on the London antiquities market from where they were rescued by Mr Green: “A group of twenty-some smaller fragments extracted from this piece, being not easily identified or re-joined, were deemed insignificant and so traded independently on the London market by the owner, and made their way from the same source into the Green collection in Oklahoma City” (p. 3). This gentleman knows what he is doing, doesn’t he? Secondly, the cartonnage is no longer described as mummy panel cartonnage, which had opened up so many problems and question marks for the date and dismantling process, but as “domestic or industrial cartonnage: it might have been employed e.g. for a book-cover or book-binding” (p. 3). It seems that Obbink was confused on this point from what the owner thought, which is strange for someone with his experience and who has written on the topic (D. Obbink, ‘P. Artemid.: The Artefact’, in: K. Brodersen, J. Elsner, Images and Texts on the “Arthemidorus Papyrus”, Stuttgart 2009), but fair enough, we all make mistakes in our research.

In order to have a better grasp on the papyri before they went through all these so far undocumented treatments, and to have official confirmation that both Coptic Galatians 2 and the Sappho cartonnage were part of Christie’s lot 1, I contacted the auction house via email. Eugenio Donadoni (manuscripts department) was so kind to confirm via email that the source is that lot. When I asked for images and documents relative to the 59 folders and their content, he told me there aren’t any: the only record is the short entry in the printed catalogue. Believe it or not, Christie’s has no snapshot or any other form of catalogue file for the lot. When I raised the point that this lack of documentation – which Mr Donadoni said is not unusual – opens a breach in the acquisition history of ancient artefacts, and is problematic for everybody from academics to responsible collectors and dealers, Donadoni said they have budget issues and too much work with too few personnel. I understand that Christie’s is a firm and not a museum, but can my readers see the threat the lack of records is to world cultural heritage? The ‘deemed insignificant’ fragments put on sale again by the anonymous owner risked to go lost: Sappho fragments could have vanished forever. Actually, if this is not an unusual behaviour, as Donadoni said, there are good reasons to believe we have already lost something in the past.

The adventures of Christie’s 2011 Lot 1 shed also light on the damages the deaccessioning of ancient artefacts and manuscripts in the ownership of institutions (museums, colleges, universities, etc.) can cause to antiquities. According to Obbink’s paper (pp. 1-2), Sappho’s cartonnage comes from group 3 of the Robinson papyri bequeathed to the University of Mississippi, which is described by W.H. Willis 1961 (‘The New Collection of Papyri at the University of Mississippi” in Proceedings of the IX International Congress of Papyrology, p. 382). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.53.12 Now the dispersion of the Robinson collection is the result of the Mississippi University Library’s decision to sell their papyri for buying something else, not an uncommon practice even in the recent past. It is worth remembering that Christie’s lot 1 included some Robinson papyri, but also others from different sources (“A number of fragments belonged to the collection of David M. Robinson, a large part of which was subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi…Two of the packets were part of the collection of P. Deaton”, this last I believe should be the collection of the Egyptologist John Deaton who sold papyri to Brigham Young University in 1980). In other words, the dynamics behind papyri emerging from the antiquities market, through auction catalogues or the web, are far more complex than we might think, and not keeping detailed records of all these passages inevitably leads to the loss of antiquities and/or their legal (or illegal) provenance.

To conclude: despite a number of questions are still open, the Sappho provenance narrative can make perfect sense once images and documents will be provided in the printed edition of the paper and in the Museum of the Bible online catalogue, which was expected for December (according to David Trobisch’s response to my paper at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting), but I believe has been delayed. “To make sense” is far from meaning “to make people (at least me) happy”. This case shows once more the damages the lack of careful treatment of acquisition history in manuscripts’ publications can cause to scholarship, and more broadly how many issues academics still have to solve regarding policies and personal behaviours to adopt in dealing with the antiquities market.